Archive for Henry Hull

Magic Man.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by dcairns

I’m delighted to present The Late Show’s first guest blogger this year — my wife, Fiona Watson.

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Did someone say Jonathan Creek? No they didn’t. They said,  Miracles For Sale (1939, MGM), Tod Browning’s last feature, a zippy little number that bears more than a passing resemblance to the BBC TV series. A magician gets involved with crime. Who wants to watch something like that? Now don’t tell me. Even though my eyes are covered by a silk scarf,  the ether is buzzing with telepathic impressions. Give me a moment… EVERYONE is the answer! Thank you ladies and gentlemen. (They do watch, every year, for the past twenty years.) It’s got magic and crime. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the similarity doesn’t end there, Morgan is a magician who designs tricks for other magicians, just like Creek. He also has a sidekick just like Creek, but in Morgan’s case it isn’t a series of ladies ending in a wife, it’s his endearingly, curmudgeonly dad (Frank Craven) who’s just dropped into the big city to visit his thaumaturgically dexterous son. A bit like The Rockford Files, if The Rockford Files had more seances, card tricks and mind reading. Dad Morgan doesn’t like New York at all,  (“New York is the only town I’ve ever been in that you could learn to hate in a day”) but is prepared to put up with it to have family time with the smoooooth Robert Young.

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Where Alan Davies brings an insouciant, quirky charm to Creek — sort of lumpy if we’re getting synesthetic –MGM leading man Robert Young is as glossy as a pane of glass wiped down with vinegar. It’s not that he’s featureless, he just plays it so fast and with such ease that he whizzes past without scratching the retinas. I almost thought that this film, and his character, could easily have been strung out into a Thin Man type series, and perhaps that was the original intent, but I’d have re-cast it with someone you could get a good hold of with your eyeballs.

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Just to make things even more Creek-like, this is a locked room mystery.  And just like Creek, we have oodles of enticing celebrity guests. Here’s Gloria (Daughter Of Dracula) Holden as medium Madame Rapport. Henry (Werewolf Of London) Hull as Dave Duvallo, an escapologist and customer of Morgan. (On seeing his name in the cast list, I mused, “Henry Hull. The sign of quality. Well… not really. It’s just the sign of Henry Hull.”) To make this even more alluring, Hull emerges, Jacqueline Bisset-like from a tank of water in a wet vest, creating an erotic frisson that no-one in the world, anywhere, has ever experienced. Except hardcore Henry Hull fans who like their men prematurely aged and dripping.  (He always seemed late-middle-aged even when he was young and again when he was old. Now that’s magic!)

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Joining the merry band is the ever-reliable William Demarest as a confused cop (Quinn) –  “Not even a half-grown microbe could’ve got out of this joint without using a crow bar and a grand jury.” Florence Rice is our imperiled (and bizarrely costumed by Dolly Tree) heroine (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately  have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses and freak shows. And finally and wonderfully, an uncredited performance by E. Alyn Warren as Dr Hendricks, a comedy coroner. “Maybe you can examine a corpse in the dark but I’m no bat.” Also uncredited in the stock music department, Franz (Bride Of Frankenstein) Waxman.

The screenplay is by Harry Ruskin, James Edward Grant and Marion Parsonnet, writer of Gilda and Cover Girl and in a strange coincidence, screenwriter in 1937 of a remake of Browning’s first sound film, 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, another heavily seance-related tale. Miracles For Sale is based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat  by Clayton Rawson. There were four Merlini books in total. In a poll conducted by 17 mystery and crime writers, Death From a Top Hat was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time.

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Brilliant prologue. We think we’re watching a very bad B War Movie, but things start to quickly fragment when we see the awful, oriental makeup on the soldiers and a woman gets machine-gunned in half in a box. “Stop the war!” barks someone off-screen at the end of the performance, and the distant shelling is switched off. We’re introduced to the world of Merlini, here renamed Michael Morgan. It’s the cut-throat world of the professional stage trickster.

Miracles For Sale is the name of the store run by Son Morgan, much to the chagrin of Dad Morgan. “Well, if you wanted to go into business, why didn’t you open a butcher shop? Now, selling meat’s a business, but, selling miracles – that’s monkey business.”

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But before you can say “Hey Presto!”  or even “Robert Houdin!” we have damsel in distress Judy Barclay charging through the front door, begging him to stop a fake medium taking part in an experiment for a cash prize if she’s authentic. And only a magician whose sideline is debunking fake mediums will do. In this regard he’s very Houdiniesque. In fact Morgan even mentions a case in which a father was being put in touch with the son he lost during World War 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, much? Judy seems disinclined to give up the whys and wherefores, but she’s so cute and her sleeves, like voluminous bellows on a concertina, are so impressive, that he just can’t help being sucked in (probably osmosis created by the shoulder bellows). Later, she’ll show up with sleeves like giant, bacofoil croissants and Morgan becomes even more besotted. Or possibly hungry.

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Before we know where we are, and in amidst a welter of card tricks, mind reading, attempts on Judy’s life because she may have inside knowledge, and spooky chicanery, there’s a dead man, master of legerdemain Tauro (Harold Minjir) then another dead man, occultist Dr. Cesare Sabbatt (Cesare was of course The Somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt who slept in a coffin in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and in his early, pre-director years, Browning performed a live burial act in which he was billed as ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’). Dr Sabbatt is played by a man called Frederick Worlock, if you can believe that on top of everything else! Both corpses are laid out in esoteric circles lined by candles in locked rooms. Not only that but Sabbatt is a post-mortem ventriloquist. Apparently. Who the dickens is the murderer or murderers? How did they get in and out? And what is their motive? There are plenty of suspects to choose from, all of them involved in the murky world of Magic and Magick.

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At this point we welcome the input of the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine McIntyre on the IMDb, for once reviewing a movie that actually exists, and not a wondrous creation of his imagination – ‘This film violates the most basic rule of magic: never do the same trick twice for the same audience, unless you do it two different ways. In one scene, sitting at a breakfast table, Robert Young casually waves his hand and makes a sugar bowl vanish into thin air. We didn’t expect it, so we don’t see how he did it. He orders another sugar bowl from the waiter, played by the annoying bit-part actor Chester Clute. When it arrives, Young waves his hand again and makes the second sugar bowl vanish too, by the same method. This time we’re expecting it, so we see how he does it … and you’ll be as disappointed as I was.’

Yes, this is an effect shot. Or to be precise, a series of effects shots. But we can’t expect Robert Young to do real, close-up magic. He’s an actor, not a prestidigitator. I see where Froggy is coming from, but I wasn’t offended by this, and indeed, its sloppiness (although David found it charming) may be one of the few signs that Browning is thoroughly fed up with the whole venture. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As Dad Morgan says, “I was a little confused before but now I’m just bewildered.” You see Morgan, although he enthusiastically unveils fake mediums who make money from other people’s grief, hasn’t entirely given up belief in the supernatural. (Unlike Houdini, who one school of thought says was murdered by angry Spiritualists.) There’s still a tiny spark of belief in him, which is kind of fascinating and suggests he’s come up against forces he hasn’t been able to explain away with the pure logic he excels in.

Addendum – Morgan’s tiny spark of belief is more to do with the studio system than anything else. I’m reliably informed (by David) that it would have been quite impossible at the time to have an atheist hero.

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You would never tell from watching it that this would be the great Tod Browning’s last film. It’s made with assurance, energy and invention. What happened? Well, as many directors do, he found himself trapped as a ‘horror’ director, when in fact he wanted to step away and do something with more social significance. His greatest dream was to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, something eventually realized by Sydney Pollack in 1969. But the studios would not relent. In the early forties he’s quoted as saying, “When I quit. I quit. I wouldn’t cross the street now to see a movie.”

I’d cross the street to see this one, not just because it’s the swan song by a unique Hollywood figure whose name still lives on with genre fans all over the world, but because it’s a slick, fun entertainment. There’s no sign of the real disillusionment Browning must have been feeling, and that’s something miraculous in itself.

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The ending presents us with a mystery. Someone rings the doorbell at Miracles For Sale, setting off a chain of silly, magical events in which Dad Morgan will get trapped in a trick, but we never get to see who the visitor is and they seem to have gone away by the time Morgan, his dad and Judy show up. Could the doorbell have been pressed by The Grim Reaper, (Time Person Of The Year 2016, NOT Donald Trump as has just been announced, although the difference may be academic) sounding the death knell for Browning’s career? We will never know.

The 2016 Jonathan Creek Christmas Special is on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 28th December, but try to give yourselves a glimpse of the original. Unfortunately this little gem doesn’t seem to be available anywhere commercially. Maybe you could do that hoodoo that you do so well, and it will appear mysteriously in a locked room.

To play us out, here is the late, great David Bowie’s homage to Browning and Chaney in Diamond Dogs.

With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump.
Dressed like a priest you was.
Tod Browning’s freak you was.

Hull-Hound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2016 by dcairns

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We never get a clear look at Warner Oland’s chubby werewolf, and that has to be a good thing.

It’s taken me this long to watch WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and God knows I’ve tried. As a kid I was no doubt eager to see it, but it never seemed to turn up on UK TV. As an adult, I was excited to finally get my hands on the thing, and then found it impossible to sit through.

This time around — third time’s the charm — it didn’t seem THAT bad — despite several strikes against it, it has a number of appealing images and ideas.

First the bad — Henry Hull is written as a completely unsympathetic boor, and that’s just how he plays it, with an added suggestion of indifference and superiority to the material. In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting the way the character perversely contradicts his own motivations — he’s jealous of his wife but either ignores her or drives her a way, he quickly becomes convinced he is indeed infected with “werewolfery” (or worse, “lycanthrophobia”) but rejects offers of help from the man who infected him. In practice, these traits are frustrating and dramatically self-defeating. “It defeats its own purpose,” as Jake LaMotta would say.

Hull lacks the physical presence and skill to make a convincing transformation, and his werewolf performance consists largely of making a face like he’s going to sneeze.

The comedy relief, zesty and startling in a James Whale film, is lumbering and ugly here. Last time I watched, I got as far as the two drunken landladies (one of them, Ethel Griffies, is the ornithologist from THE BIRDS — not that old, she would live another forty years). The film is full of menopausal women, Fiona pointed out, and they’re all played as clowns. Spring Byington (“So romantic, with the Thames lapping at one’s very threshold”) is the main culprit. Worse is the way the so-called hero’s lunar depredations are followed by jocular scenes at Scotland Yard, with the police chortling away together despite the wave of manglings sweeping the metropolis.

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Good stuff — going all the way to Tibet to get bitten by a werewolf is gloriously excessive.

Gratuitous killer plants! An entirely satisfying horror movie about rival botanists could probably be concocted with no need for werewolfery at all. Although, there’s THE WOMANEATER to prove me wrong.

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Warner Oland in a role maybe planned for Lugosi — now he’s a professor from the University of the Carpathians, with a Japanese name. And he’s a LOVELY werewolf, much nicer than H.H.

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Ah-ah-ah…. CHOO!

But I dig the way Hull remains somewhat compos mentis when wolfing about — he actually turns into a werewolf and then PUTS ON A HAT to go out. And he gets a deathbed speech in werewolf form. Though the principles of Lon Chaney wolfman mythos are being laid down here in an early form, the story is still in large part Jekyll & Hyde.

Also — GREAT first transformation, using foreground columns which occlude the frame, in a relay of shots connected by hidden wipes, so that Hull’s makeup (by Universal monster supremo Jack Pierce) can develop in yak-fur increments.

Town without pity

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)

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None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —

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Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.

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Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~

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The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.

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However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.